Composing a Career: Shiyu Chen on TV, Networking, and Inspiration

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Here at Jam Addict, we’ve had the chance to interview quite a few composers, and it’s been great every single time. What can we say; we like talking to professionals who know their stuff, and each guest has a unique way of composing music.


It takes serious skill to even qualify for a composing job, and getting a foot into the door of the entertainment industry is basically a job all its own. 


But our guest, Shiyu Chen, is a masterful composer who has overcome all this and more. She’s one of the most adept composers working in the industry today, and recently she’s been working with Rob Cairns of Rob Cairns Music on big-name television and streaming shows like Love Death + Robots, The Bachelor, and The Bachelorette. Oh yeah, and Chen has also composed music for major video game trailers for properties like Warframe and the much-lauded Elder Scrolls Online. 


We talked about these projects during the interview, but I also really wanted to get a feel for Chen’s approach to making it in entertainment, and that led us to some other interesting topics like networking, daily workflow, and communication. 


In other words, there’s a lot here, and I’m happy to share it all with you. Be sure to keep an ear out for more music from Chen in the near future. 


Jam Addict (JA): Have you always had an interest in movie scores? How early were you hoping to pursue a career in composition? 


Shiyu Chen (SC): I’ve loved to watch movies since I was a kid. Every Saturday night, I would just sit in front of the TV and wait for the China Movie Channel to play. I remember the first time when I watched the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I was so impressed and amazed by the music score composed by the French composer Alexandre Desplat. That was the first time I realized how gorgeous his music was and became interested in music scores. 


After that, I started to learn piano and composition and wanted to pursue a music career. But the most important film and music score that really influenced me and made me want to become a film composer is The Last Emperor, which I first saw when I was in high school.  



JA: What was your gateway to professional composition? What was the professional opportunity that really started your career?


SC: When I was still studying film scoring at Berklee College of music, I went back to China for summer break and joined the Xigua Music Company, which is the biggest music composing company for film and TV in China. I started to compose professional soundtracks for TV series including The Glory of Youth and Dance of the Phoenix. 


After I went back to Berklee, I was still composing tracks for them. After I graduated, I moved to LA and started to look for composer opportunities, and that’s when I met Rob Cairns. I started working for Rob in 2020, and together we’ve worked together on projects like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette for ABC, Love Death + Robots season three for Netflix, the Warframe game trailer from 2021, and The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle trailer.


JA: What inspired your relocation to the US? What was it like looking for career opportunities in composition here in the States?


SC: The Hollywood film Industry is definitely the best and the most diverse film industry in the world. I moved to LA right after graduating from Berklee College of Music in Boston because you learn more from the composers, projects, and film people in the industry. Looking for a career in composition in the States is very competitive because there are so many great composers who love music and film, and I am lucky to be working here.


JA: In your line of work, is the ability to collaborate essential?


SC: Definitely! Being a composer for film, writing music is obviously important, but working with directors, producers, and music editors is far more difficult and important in the process of making a film or TV series. The ability to collaborate and communicate is very essential.


JA: To what extent has networking been a part of your career, if at all? 


SC: Networking is the first thing I did after I moved to LA. I started to email composers, friends, and Berklee Alumni to get in touch with people who were already working here. It’s very important to continue networking with people in the film industry because the more people you know, the more opportunities you will have.



JA: Have any aspects of your current work surprised you at all, particularly in terms of scheduling or workflow?


SC: Sometimes, a change of the footage or a note from the director or producer will change the day’s work. For example, if we just finished the first version of the music and sent it out to the director and producer, the next day we get the feedback. The whole team will be jumping from composing and producing to conforming and editing. The workflow is always changing, and we just have to adjust to it.


JA: What’s something about your current role that you’ve really come to appreciate?


SC: Working with Rob, I really appreciate that I have the chance to compose and orchestrate music for my favorite show, Love Death + Robots. It was my dream in college to work on shows like Love Death + Robots. And I’ve learned so much from Rob, not only about composing and producing high-quality music fast but also communicating and collaborating with other people.


JA: If you were starting your career over, is there anything you would choose to do differently? 


SC: The one thing I would choose to do differently is to start networking as early as I can and meet more new people back in school and try to remember that the more people you know, the more chances you will have.

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